New faces to be given their chance in battle of familiar foes between Monaghan and Donegal
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup Section C: Monaghan v Donegal (tomorrow, 2pm, Clones)
OUT on the field, Malachy O’Rourke and Declan Bonner strolled from one side of the pitch to the other after inspecting the offending frozen area.
Huddled in the tunnel at St Tiernach’s Park, hopped up in warm jackets and woolly hats to guard against the winter cold, stand Paddy McBrearty, Kieran Hughes, Ryan McHugh and Conor McManus.
Four of the best players in Ulster - some who used to share a house, some friends from university days - shooting the breeze in the moments after official confirmation that their Dr McKenna Cup clash was off.
These two groups of players know each other better than most.
Tomorrow’s rescheduled clash will be the counties’ 10th meeting since Monaghan’s surprise Ulster final breakthrough in 2013, but their first in the McKenna Cup. In that time, the average margin of victory has been less than three points.
Therefore, a pressure-free pre-season knockabout seems at odds with the intensity of the rivalry cultivated. But then, for both, the landscape has changed somewhat.
With the gap widening to Tyrone in Ulster, never mind the all-conquering Dubs at the top of the tree, new faces and new ideas are required more than ever.
Bonner has taken on a squad whose links with 2012 are, inevitably, diminishing year on year.
Key to his appointment for a second term was the work done at minor and U21 level, and the hope that he can successfully transition some of those players into the senior ranks so that Donegal might come again.
Last year, and those heavy Championship defeats to Tyrone and Galway, was a wake-up call. Unsurprisingly, Bonner’s eyes are looking further down the line towards the start of the National League.
“I’m enjoying it, the boys are working really hard so it’s all good,” said the 1992 All-Ireland winner.
“We’re in Killarney on January 28 so it’s going to come pretty thick and fast. There’s a lot of new lads will be thrown into the lion’s den down there but we have to stand up and be counted and that’s what we’re looking for.
“This is what the McKenna Cup is so useful for – seeing exactly where some of these players are at.”
Michael Langan, who featured last year, scored 1-6 against Queen’s in their McKenna Cup opener and is a serious prospect in the forward line, while newcomer Nathan Mullins has also done well.
The son of Dublin legend Brian has played both games so far, against Queen’s and Fermanagh, and Bonner likes what he has seen.
“He’s settled in very well,” said the Tir Chonaill boss. “He’s in good shape, real good attitude about him, he does everything in a professional manner.”
Odhran Mac Niallais returned to the fold against the Ernemen on Wednesday night but was black-carded after just 12 minutes, while Stephen McBrearty – brother of Paddy – landed two points.
After a disappointing Championship campaign last year, which saw them lose to Down in the Ulster semi-final before bowing out of the All-Ireland series meekly to eventual champions Dublin, Monaghan boss Malachy O’Rourke must also get his thinking cap on.
In terms of experience, the Farneymen are one of the most established teams in the country, but 2017 showed that they need more than they currently have.
Young David Garland has been tipped for big things and scored 1-4 against Queen’s on Wednesday night.
Corner-back Colm Lennon and forward Dean Connolly lasted the 70 on their Monaghan debuts, while Shane Garland and Damien McArdle sprung from the bench for their first starts.
Whoever wins will go into a semi-final against either Derry or Armagh on Wednesday night, and both managers would welcome another game to get a look at their fringe players before the League.
The Farneymen are likely to field more experienced men than their Donegal counterparts and, on that basis alone, you have to give them the nod.